Published:


CHChristopher
Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative
Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
Follow Open Europe on Twitter.

So now we
know that if there is a Conservative Government after 2015 there will be a real
attempt to negotiate a new deal for the UK within the EU followed by a straight
In/Out referendum.

William
Hague has, in the past, referred to Europe as a ticking bomb planted under the
heart of the Conservative Party. David Cameron therefore deserves huge credit
for tackling this issue head on and attempting to defuse it. So can the all-clear
be sounded? Well, perhaps surprisingly, yes – as there are sound, logical
reasons for all Conservative strands of opinion to back this new renegotiation
referendum policy (the 2R policy).

The
existence of Tory Euro factions is overplayed by the media, but, with the help
of an ethnologist, here is how the three main ‘tribes’ should react.

First, we have the “Reformists”
tribe.
This is by
far the largest tribe within the Parliamentary party and is reflective of board
public opinion. This group comprises much of the new intake of MPs, the 100+
supporters of the Fresh Start project and many Ministers who see the faults in
the EU but, rather than leave altogether, believe that there is a possibility
to improve the UK’s terms into something that the British people could be happy
with. This group would have been disenfranchised if a referendum was held prior
to renegotiation, and so should feel relieved that they now have the chance to
prove renegotiation can work. They should be the loudest cheerleaders for David
Cameron’s speech as their approach now has a powerful champion.

Second, we have the “Status Quo”
tribe.
This is a
small tribe of c.20 MPs, some new MPs and others who originally supported the
euro. Although not necessarily against reform they nonetheless fear that a
failed re-negotiation could lead to unrealistic expectations being dashed and a
race for the EU exit. This group is elusive, writing a concerned letter to the FT,
but refusing to publish their names. However, this group is aware the status
quo is not an option, and that moves towards Eurozone integration requires a UK
response.

This group
should not be afraid. David Cameron has said
renegotiation will be done in tandem with other states to put the UK’s
membership on a sustainable footing. They should not resist, but take ownership
of the project and make sure it is a success. This group should study the
opinion polls which consistently show that support for staying inside the EU on
new more favourable terms can be high. This is a far better long-term bet for
UK EU membership than seeking to avoid change or refusing to consult the
people. They should and probably will support the speech.

Third, there is the “Better off
Out” tribe.
This tribe
comprises a small but vocal group of MPs who believe that the cost/benefit
ratio of the UK’s EU membership is so high the UK should leave and negotiate a
new deal outside the EU. This group believe that renegotiation within the EU
will inevitably lead to failure and so is not worth contemplating. They share
this view with the “Status quo” tribe.

The “Better
off Out” tribe should be very happy with this speech. They have long campaigned
for an EU In/Out referendum, and now it could happen within five years. They
will therefore be able to test their arguments in front of the public.
Following their logic, if, as they believe, negotiations fail then this group
has effectively been vindicated and will have a powerful springboard to secure
an Out. This group has gained exactly what it has argued for and so should
enthusiastically back the speech.

So, all the
tribes have a reason to rally behind David Cameron. Given that, the best
response would be for the Conservative Party to put up an impressive show of
unity and pressure the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to likewise explain
what their policy response to the eurocrisis is. Will for instance Labour go
into the election promising to defeat a referendum? There is a huge opportunity
to pay back, with interest, a decade of Labour taunts about a “divided”
Conservative party.

But there
are some unanswered questions that could still upset things. The main one is
the speech has (rightly) not yet set out what the specific  aims of
renegotiation will be. This will have to come, but until it does there will be
those afraid that we could see a re-run of 1975, when only a few token
additional benefits were gained. There will have to be a debate on the
substance of a renegotiation, but at the moment Conservatives should be happy
with the general principle. In addition, there are the conditions that are
attached. Will the 2R policy apply if (God forbid) there is another Coalition
post 2015? How long will renegotiations be allowed to take? Will Cabinet
ministers be allowed to campaign for an out?

All these
concerns somewhat jump the gun, lets concentrate on the big picture, the
British people could now, at long last, get the chance to have their say on a
reformed EU – the biggest “if” standing in the way of that is a Labour victory
in 2015. For that, at least, all the Conservative tribes should unite.

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